Gavin Newsom: We put a human face on same-sex marriage debate

When Gavin Newsom allowed gay marriage in S.F., some Democrats blamed him for reelecting Bush. He still remembers

Published February 2, 2013 7:00PM (EST)

 Gavin Newsom with a newly married couple in San Francisco in 2004.       (AP/Erin Lubin)
Gavin Newsom with a newly married couple in San Francisco in 2004. (AP/Erin Lubin)

The story in the New York Times carried the headline "Some Democrats Blame One of Their Own." As fingers were pointed following the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, some Democrats wanted to blame the mayor of San Francisco for John Kerry's defeat.

By granting same-sex couples marriage certificates and celebrating thousands of gay marriages in City Hall, they argued, Gavin Newsom "played into President Bush's game plan by inviting a showdown on the divisive same-sex-marriage issue."

It wasn't just Southern Democrats with that opinion, either -- Newsom's critics included the likes of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank. But in less than eight years, gay marriage has gone from a wedge issue even some progressive-minded Democrats feared to commanding a plurality of support nationally. Newsom, once left for dead, is now the lieutenant governor of California.

You might expect Newsom's new book to be a victory lap, but instead he has gone wonk with "Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government." You might even wish he'd take the victory lap: "Citizenville" is a super-earnest and utopian ode to the way technology could fix politics and open the doors to real participatory democracy. It takes its title from a game Newsom proposes as a sort of "Angry Birds for Democracy," in which people will get points for calling in potholes to the city.

Newsom may be a genuine optimist, but it's the kind of book politicians write when they want to make the interview circuit, so we took him up on that this week -- to reflect on gay marriage, to extend his ideas about transparency in government to the Bradley Manning case and gun control debate, and more.

You took a lot of political heat in 2004 when you directed the San Francisco clerk's office to issue marriage certificates for same-sex couples, even though that defied California state law. And a lot of that heat came from Democrats. There were people who blamed you for George W. Bush winning a second term, who argued that the sight of these gay marriages in San Francisco played into the sort of culture wars that Bush was all too eager to exploit. Do you feel vindicated by what has happened in the last eight years, and how quickly public opinion has changed? 

I’ll leave the notion of vindication to more objective folks. But I’m certainly humbled, because I never anticipated -- I really didn’t, I don’t know if I want to say in my lifetime, because it makes it into an exaggeration, but certainly in the immediate term -- I never expected to have the kind of blooming we had in the last decade or so. You are right, the criticism wasn’t just from traditional opponents; it was from a lot of my friends condemning and criticizing and second-guessing what we did in 2004, and that was a bitter pill to swallow, reading the news reports of some very high-profile people that I respect and continue to respect.

After the 2004 election, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein famously called it "too much, too fast, too soon." Barney Frank told the New York Times that with "spectacle weddings," you "created a sense that there was chaos."  

(laughing) Yeah, so a lot of folks were critical. But what I think happened -- and I hope even though they were concerned at the time, they would reflect back and note that we put a human face on the issue, and that was the intention. It was not to look on the issue of discrimination in the abstract, as a legal brief, but to put a face, a narrative, a story behind that, and to look at a couple – of course, the first couple we married was with intention and purpose -- Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who had been together more than half a century. And they were the physical manifestation, from my perspective, of love and fate and devotion and constancy, what marriage should be all about. So those 4,000-plus couples from almost every state in the nation, from countries around the world, did, I think, an extraordinary amount for the movement.

Did you ever think that you had set the movement back, that you'd helped reelect Bush, or, as Sen. Feinstein said, pushed too fast, too soon? 

When I think back, I think the most compelling thing that I reflect on is I have never -- and perhaps I’ll be challenged with this -- but personally I’ve not yet seen one image that has been exploited from that month of February. All of the traditional bias and clichés about the gay community and gay lifestyle, none of the images can be exploited to play into that frame of fear. What people saw, and the chief justice of the California Supreme Court all but acknowledged this -- and ultimately became a principal player in what is now in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. He saw mothers and brothers and sisters and uncles and kids and grandkids, and that was what was so remarkable -- how unremarkable it was. People realized it was about them -- it’s about their neighbors, about their friends and family. It wasn’t just about “an abstract,” the gay community.

Is that what changed nationally as well, do you think? Because it really is remarkable to think how quickly this has gone from being a wedge issue that even progressive Democrats thought was a losing issue, into something that can pass at referendum or be affirmed by the supreme courts of red states. 

Things don’t happen if you sit by idly and wait, and I guess the lesson here -- it’s a historic lesson, it’s a historic truth -- you've got to be willing to get arrows in your back, you've got to be willing to lean into the world, and that’s challenging to some people. It just became so personal in this context that suddenly there was no party construct. Dick Cheney’s daughter is gay. It's just that all of a sudden people realized, “Wait a second here, this is not about Democrats and their issues, it’s about, you know, uncle Joe’s son and uncle Joe is a lifelong conservative, but my gosh, his son is an amazing kid. Maybe I should I soften my  views. I think the equality genie got out of the bottle in 2004 in Massachusetts and San Francisco and they couldn’t put it back in the bottle.

California's Proposition 8 referendum voted down gay marriage; a federal judge overturned it last year and the case is heading to the Supreme Court, which will rule whether the equal protection clause in the Constitution prevents states from defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman.  Do you worry that the makeup of this court could stuff the genie back in the bottle?

The makeup of this court is always curious. But I think without exception they know what side of history they will ultimately be on, and that’s up to them to make that determination of their legacy. I’m not naive, by any means; we've had our setbacks here, but I’m very optimistic certainly about Prop 8, and DOMA as well, this notion of marriage equality throughout the land, I’m convinced, will make its way back to the court well within our lifetime, and hopefully within the next decade or so.

There were people who thought the reaction to your decision in 2004 would be the end of your career.

Yeah, I was reasonably convinced of that as well. You know, it’s one of those great moments in life, this wonderful point of liberation when it didn’t matter. Remember, I came into politics with another career, so I didn’t get into politics for a career. So I got in, and I remember, so the state folks were critical -- and I’m not talking Feinstein or Barney, in this case, or leaders of a party, even nationally. But so many of my political mentors said – the one piece of advice they all gave, it was consistent, was, “Do what you think is right.” And then I did it, and they said, “Wait a second, hold on.” (laughing).

"We didn't mean do that ..."

Yeah, you've got to ask for permission … I think Arnold Schwarzenegger went on “Meet the Press” and talked about the facts there were riots. All of us looked around, bewildered by that. With respect to Barney Frank’s comment, this notion of chaos, I think that’s a bit overstated. I admire Barney greatly; I just didn’t accept his admonition or even advice. (laughing) He called to say, “Here’s what you are going to do,” and with respect, I had a different point of view.

It must have stung, though, to have that kind of criticism coming from people in your own party. You'd been touted by Newsweek as one of the young stars of the party along with someone named Barack Obama, and then by that November, he's given the keynote at the convention and you're one of the people blamed for the ticket's defeat.

Again, those are people I long admired and continue to, but, I don’t know. People like me come and go; you are seriously given a moment in time, some a little bit more time than others, and frankly, too much time in many cases. But you get one chance, and from my perspective, the last two out of three mayors in San Francisco were kicked out of office, and the chances of me, having just barely won, being kicked out, were pretty high. I figured out that I have four years to not look back with regret, and that was really it.

I mean, honestly, there was a real chance we are going to be arrested. We had legitimate concerns about a recall campaign. People forget San Francisco has still never had a gay mayor. Standing on a principle is a glorious thing if you believe in it.

In your new book, "Citizenville," you have a discussion of WikiLeaks that includes former President Clinton and Arianna Huffington, and you call for much greater transparency in government. So what is your sense of the prosecution of Bradley Manning? Is this a case of the government overreaching?

It’s so interesting. I’ve had so many interesting conversations and experiences, not least of which was a big fundraiser for President Obama in San Francisco at the St. Regis Hotel where a table was purchased, a very costly table, by protesters demanding the president respond to the Manning issue and have him call for leniency. I had a really interesting conversation with them, and I say that only to make the point: I don’t know enough. I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I’ve had very provocative conversations with people who think that we’ve overindulged the prosecution in condemnation. My instinct was certainly there. My default is there, that we have. But others have cautioned me, and perhaps the conversation with President Clinton was sort of an example of that caution. So it’s difficult for me, because on the surface I want to say immediately that this is a preposterous overreaction, but then again I understand the concerns. I understand there’s a lot that I don’t understand about some of the details and the nuances and the evidence.

But it just goes to the broader issue -- this idea that we’re living in a fishbowl, the idea that large institutions, private sector corporations and/or government institutions can’t hide behind the wall that we have in the past. Those days are over, and this is the new norm. And I think it’s a beautiful thing, I think we need a little aeration here in government. And I think it’s healthy, I think it leads to more accountability and, ultimately, the one thing it leads to that’s more important than anything else is trust. We’ve lost trust with the public. So that’s why I’ve gravitated toward this topic of openness and open government and open data.

Politicians like to say that -- until their own emails wind up on the front page, until there's a call for records that they want to hide behind privilege or national security.

I've struggled with that myself. The reflective nature of politicians like myself, and bureaucrats, certainly, and government employees – it’s understandable, the natural hesitancy, because every time there’s a Freedom of Information Act or a Sunshine request, invariably it’s going to be used against us, this information. It’s a headline, and so we’re naturally reticent to provide it. And so my point is this is the new norm, and we’ve got to get ahead of it. We’ve got to sort of shift that mind-set, and look beyond the nature of the press, but the public’s opportunity to access this information and this data -- and the remarkable capacity and talent that exists with members of the public to utilize and to make connections and form new opinions and connections to that data.

What should be made available and what should not be made available? Is the information, say, in WikiLeaks cables something that provides valuable insight into how our foreign policy is created, or is that the kind of thing that you would say should be left out? Or here in New York, a newspaper used public records to map out all of the gun owners in their circulation area right after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting. That caused not only a lot of controversy, but led the state Legislature here to take access to that kind of information away. Where do you come down in those cases?

Yeah, I mean, it's a fabulous question. I think it’s so difficult to answer that, because every circumstance provides for its own analysis and consideration. You know, it is public information that relates to certain data, but in the heat of the moment, with the intensity and the fury to publish all of those addresses, it raises some legitimate questions. At the same time, the idea that New York would deny that access, period – I think that was an overreaction, and a potentially dangerous one. And I say that respectfully based on a lot of the good things that did come out of that gun control legislation. So it’s difficult. The issue – public safety is always the cloak that we hide behind, and I get that, though we always – we tend to – again, the bureaucratic default is everything’s then about privacy and public safety and personnel and nothing that gets exposed. So we tend to be somewhat quick to judge all our data as somewhat confidential or of a personal nature, and that’s preposterous as well.

I saw some examples of my own struggles with my city employees; we were one of the first cities to push a lot of this, and their reticence – they were giving me the same line and excuses, saying, “No, this could be used against us.” You remember the San Bruno tragedy with the gas line explosion. People wanted to know: Is there a gas line underneath my house? And people were like, “Oh, well, you can’t tell them, because then terrorists will know where all the gas lines are and they’ll blow up your house.” So every circumstance has its own unique facts and such, but the default must be more data, more public access, and that we should not and cannot hide behind this reflective desire of secrecy. Because WikiLeaks proves you can’t hold on – there’s a reason WikiLeaks exists. There’s a reason [for] the intensity and it’s because we’ve been holding back and this is gonna be the natural reaction. It’s just not – it’s not sustainable practice. It’s not good practice, nor is it sustainable.

You argue in the book that technology could be something that actually brings us together, and contributes to a post-partisan age. But other people would look at the rise of Google News algorithms that make it possible to see the kinds of stories that you want to see, or cable channels that allow you to get only the news you want. Or Facebook friends you can curate to block out that one Republican friend ... Is technology something that brings us closer together and bridges some of the partisan divides? Or is it something that has simply made it too easy for us all to retreat to our separate corners? 

That's a wonderful example; I don’t know if it’s wonderful, but for me it was profound, when I was at TED a couple of years ago and learned about the Google algorithms and everyone’s searches being different. It was just a big eye-opener to me. Look, I think the answer is yes and no. You’ve certainly seen it with media today. You read Drudge, I read Salon. You watch MSNBC,  I watch Fox. You read the Wall Street Journal editorials, I read the New York Times instead. So it already exists, but in the broadcast model. And you’re seeing some of the tribalism within social networks that certainly exists.

But you’re also seeing new contours of empathy and engagement and cross-collaboration in non-ideological ways, taking shape with the peer-to-peer platforms that are being developed, where people are increasingly looking to solve problems on their own and not looking for intermediaries like government to do so. And those are the examples we use – like the Donors Choose or Kickstarter-type models, the Indiegogo-type models. I mean, there’s literally hundreds and hundreds of them. And it’s sort of bypassing that tribal partisan sort of cultural divide that I think is significant.

Are politicians trying to use this for anything other than reaching out to more people for more money?

Yeah, no, that’s a problem –

I certainly got an awful lot of emails in the days leading up to the election, and from my "to" field, you'd think I was very good friends with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Haven't heard from them since Nov. 7 or so,

Yeah, I miss ‘em. Michelle! And Joe – I got close to Joe. I miss all my old friends!

Obama is now attempting to keep this movement going. The limitation of his new, reannounced organization is that it still has a partisan frame, and the issues of transparency and access and funding remain open. And I think the notion that it’s a virtual 24/7, 365-day campaign is potentially problematic. But the idea of utilizing that technology for engagement is incredibly important and significant. But we certainly saw, four years ago, almost to the day, President Obama was asked about the issue of legalizing marijuana at a town hall. Now he wanted to keep those 35,000 self-organizing communities after, after the campaign, and so they wanted to exercise and engage people’s voices, and he asked, as anyone would, what are your priorities? It wasn't two wars in Iraq, a war on terrorism, climate change – instead, he heard, “Legalize marijuana!” And he made a flippant remark about that, infamously, and people blew back intensely. They were serious, and immediately that technology -- they literally turned it off. They said, “Oh, this is great. We’re gonna tweak the technology. Thank you very much for this engagement, see ya later,” and they never turned it back on until the campaign. And you’re even seeing it with their petition sites, right?

The whole idea of citizen engagement is wrought with peril and be careful what you wish for. So the challenge is, politicians can use the tools of technology to get elected reasonably well: to get money, to organize neighbors, to get out the vote. But then when we get into office, we turn off those amplified voices, and then we go back to a broadcast model. You vote, I govern. And what I’m arguing for is a hybrid model: understanding the notion of representative democracy, but also understanding the importance of active citizenship, participatory democracy, which our founders spoke so eloquently about – getting back, in many ways, to those principles. It’s a hybrid model that I’m arguing for, and so that’s an opportunity here. I admire the president leaning into this, and I hope he broadens it -- again not just with a database for Democrats, as much as I’m biased and think that’s fabulous – I want it to be broadened to civic engagement and a platform for civic engagement that’s about the American people, not just the Democratic Party.

So why is government so slow to embrace this possibility? Is it fear of that kind of participatory democracy?

Yeah, of course.You might have to talk about legalizing marijuana -- or, you know, deporting Piers Morgan. I mean, it’s hard enough to respond to constituent emails, having a two-way conversation that’s ongoing? My gosh, that’s real work, and so, you know, it’s the old adage: “If you want to move the mouse, you gotta move the cheese.” And the incentives in politics are for bad behavior. The incentives are for partisanship, ideological rigidity, the incentives are quite self-evident. You break with those orthodoxies, you put yourself at great risk and peril, politically and otherwise. The incentives are not there for active citizen engagement because you can easily get elected without it. What you have to do is, you’ve got to indulge your party in its core base, particularly in the primary system that dominates in this country, and you’ve got to maintain strong relationships with big money donors and our special interest friends, and on all sides of the aisle. If you indulge them, then you’re safe. So, you know, the incentives are not there for this active engagement.

That said, my argument is: This is a tsunami, this is the new digital divide. While it’s still dominated by a socioeconomic divide, it’s less and less so every day as the tools of technology become more ubiquitous, the cost barriers become less significant. There are certainly still broadband issues, there are all kinds of legitimate issues, but the growing divide now, the most acute divide now, is between our public institutions, government, and the private sector. And you’ve got this whole generation of digital natives, this whole millennial generation that you can’t educate like I was educated, through the mass educational system. You can’t – there’s this whole idea being treated as a subject, and not a citizen, those days are about to come to an end.

As transformative as this technology might be, and as excited as you sound by it, do you have any concerns that the new boss is much the same as the old boss -- that, say, we're creating things like Facebook graph, and entering our likes into a new commercial system designed essentially to sell our preferences right back to us. 

Yeah, I mean that’s the commercial side of this. I think I asked every one of the 68 people I interviewed about this idea of privacy. Is it dead? Did we ever have it? Does it exist? Do we care and do we have a new balance? And the consensus, and by no means exclusive, but I think the overwhelming majority of people said, “You got a whole new generation that’s leaving digital bread crumbs and they just don’t get it like we all get it. We’re all struggling with it and this whole new generation that just – they want that better service, they want that more customized app, and that means they’re going to have to give up a little bit more.”

This will be our perennial struggle because I want that, you know, I want that service as we move to the cloud and smartphones, and apps. I want the best service that’s tailored to where I am locally, GPS. At the same time, I don’t want to give up all that data. So how do you balance, you know, that consumer need for the next and the best with the desire to have some semblance of privacy. And I’ve been in politics too long, I guess I’ve sort of concluded, sadly, that privacy as we’ve known it is all but dead.

You also have some nice things to say about the Tea Party in this book.

Here’s why: I like people who step up and step in. I like doers, I like people expressing themselves. I like folks who show up, I like folks that lean in, and you know what? For all the critique – and there’s not much I agree with the Tea Party, I mean, truly, with this one exception – that I agree with this idea of active engagement. These folks stepped up. And, you know, so did the Occupy folks. What I admire most about the Tea Party is, they didn’t just step up, they were effective. I think we overstated it a little bit, but I don’t want to understate. They were incredibly effective, and continue to be reasonably effective. They galvanized people’s attention, and that means people of goodwill with, I think, more enlightened interests can do the same or more.

But why do you think that doesn’t happen on the other side? Why is it that it doesn’t seem like any Democratic politicians are afraid of a primary challenge from their left flank as much as some pretty conservative people in Congress are terrified of being primaried by people even further to the right?

The Republican Party has been traditionally, though one can argue, at this moment perhaps less so, extraordinarily disciplined. It’s a smaller tent, and so it’s more apt to successfully act with an iron fist in a more effective way. The Democratic Party’s traditionally been a little less disciplined, a much bigger tent, and as a consequence is unable to sort of exercise that control as effectively. But, you know, it’s a legitimate question, this Occupy movement just didn’t have the sustainability that the Tea Party movement did. It certainly got a lot of attention, but it was a reaction, I think, partially to the Tea Party, and reaction obviously to the growing trend lines, not just to the headlines of the day on income inequality, but the 30-year trend line. But the Tea Party continues to have remarkable power -- again, more diluted and more, certainly, diminished, but boy, within certain parts of the country, still wheeling obvious authority and control.

Last question: You ended your talk show on Current TV at the same time that the network was sold to Al Jazeera. Your contract was up, but if it hadn't been up, would you have had a problem keeping the show on the air?

It’s interesting, you know, they had told me they were going to sell right when – about a month after I had started, the rumors were out there. So I knew that that was coming up, and that’s why we had a shorter-term contract. It’s a good question because you know what, I think that our Al Jazeera's news is outstanding, it’s some of the best journalism out there. But the truest answer is this: that they’re just going to a completely different format. And so the chances of any of us, from, you know, from Jennifer Granholm on down, of being part of their plans was minimal. Because they would just be going through a completely different format, so it was unlikely.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

MORE FROM David Daley

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Jazeera Books Current Tv Editor's Picks Gavin Newsom Gay Marriage